Harmony Emge School District 175 board members on Monday evening voted to continue discussing a proposed agreement that would allow a private firm to operate special education services out of vacant rooms at Ellis Elementary School.
The 4-1 vote allows the board and the firm — Sequel Youth and Family Services — to craft an agreement that would allow the firm to provide special education to six Harmony students as well as other students in the metro-east with severe developmental and behavioral disorders. Currently, Harmony students who would be eligible to receive their education under the proposal are bused to St. Louis.
Board Vice President Bob Peyman cast the lone ‘no’ vote.
District parents and residents who crammed into board’s meeting room were split between favoring and opposing the agreement. Opponents worried that the district — and the taxpayers who support it — would give up valuable control over their kids’ education because a private company isn’t subject to the same scrutiny as a public school. Supporters favor keeping Harmony students who need the services closer to home instead of busing them out of town.
Under the possible agreement, Sequel would pay rent to use two of the school’s empty classrooms as well as for some administrative space. Sequel would hire its own staff. To pay for the educational services, state funds earmarked for that purpose would pass through Harmony to Sequel.
“This is a for-profit business in a publicly funded school district,” said district parent Ben Shepherd. “I’m paying tax dollars for this. They’re going to make a profit. Am I getting any kickback? No. Why are our tax dollars going to fund this program? If they are privately-funded, then they need to go find a building where they can have this.”
Mark Bagby, who also opposes an agreement with Sequel, said the company has never operated in a public school setting before. He said the district was moving too quickly to make a deal without carefully considering all its options.
“At a minimum, why not put a proposal together to find a company that has experience in this type of setting, with this type of curriculum, and has an acceptable safety record?” Bagby said. “Either way, make it a joint effort between parents, educators and the board.”
Shannon Russell, whose two daughters attend school in the district, said he normally doesn’t favor “privatizing mental health education.” But he said that considering the school’s financial outlook and the fact that local educators will help create the programs Sequel staff may use if an agreement is reached, it’s the right call because special education teachers “know what works.”
“It is not an experiment. They’re not experimenting on our children. They’re using time-tested, evidence-based approaches that they have learned through decades of working with developmentally disabled children,” Russell said.
“We’re talking about children here. We’re not talking about monsters, we’re not talking about criminals,” board member Todd Rick, a supporter of the proposal, said. “We’re talking about helping out our own folks, our own neighbors, our own children with this program.”
Board member Shannon Perschbacher also supports an agreement with Sequel and said “these board members have students at Ellis. Why on earth would we bring in a program that would affect our own children?”
“The vote tonight is to decide whether or not we are going to go to the next step, which is talking about the contract and lease,” Perschbacher added. “We’ve got a lot of questions to hammer out. We cannot answer everything right now.”